Since spring 2021, the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) has been identifying best practices in psychosocial support to better facilitate collaboration and cooperation between religious actors and mental health professionals who provide services to conflict-affected communities — including trauma-affected displaced persons. The initiative will focus on Latin America as a pilot region, aiming to offer practical recommendations to relevant stakeholders.

Migration and displacement, particularly involving armed conflict, are complex processes which expose persons to stressful events and often trauma. In countries experiencing social upheaval and high levels of violence and polarization, mental health can be a serious challenge to post-peace accord scenarios or peacebuilding. 

The Rev. Nelson Sandoval visits a family drying annatto seeds in El Tukuko, Venezuela

Research has shown that there is a higher prevalence of mental disorders and behavioral problems among displaced persons, which can make unemployment more prevalent and hinder integration into new communities and societies. USIP recognizes the pressing need to bridge the gap between religious actors, mental health professionals and other government and nongovernment actors tasked with the psychosocial support of displaced populations. 

Religious actors are often on the frontlines of responding to the needs — including mental health — of people who have been displaced by violent conflict. Religious and many non-religious people often look to religious actors and institutions to support their psychosocial needs.

Furthermore, religious institutions tend to have broader access to territories and populations, often where other service providers cannot operate, given their ability to work locally while benefitting from the credibility and trust engendered by their religious ties and affiliation. In a time when there are an extraordinary number of trauma-impacted migrants and displaced people worldwide — and when locally available mental health professionals are overburdened or cannot enter the areas where they are needed most — strengthening the capacity of religious actors in this field will enhance trauma support, while still respecting the unique roles and contributions of each actor. 

The Colombian and Venezuelan Context — A Pilot Program

More than 50 years of armed conflict, political exclusion and social inequity have left over 6 million people internally displaced within Colombia. Similarly, recent data suggests that 1.7 million Venezuelan migrants currently reside in Colombia. This creates conditions where the emotional, social and relational lives of victims of displacement and migration are negatively impacted. Common mental health problems among these migrants and displaced persons include fear; a feeling of losing control over life; uncertainty; and more serious and potentially permanent conditions such as anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The Colombian context offers valuable learning opportunities, given that the recurrence of forced displacement is the most common form of victimization, even after the historic 2016 peace agreement. The conflict disproportionately affected Afro-descendant, indigenous and other marginalized ethnic communities, causing trauma and the rupture of the social fabric. Moreover, the extensive work on psychosocial support by diverse actors, particularly religious institutions, offers lessons to better inform support for displaced trauma survivors in other contexts. For instance, the Catholic Church has been a pioneer in supporting victims and doing advocacy work for the recognition of victim’s rights. Meanwhile, protestant churches, through diverse NGOs and ecumenical networks, have contributed to diverse forms of psychosocial support and have jointly organized activities to acknowledge victims. 

With the increased migration of Venezuelans to Colombia, local faith-based organizations and religious actors are providing psychosocial services to the migrant population and coordinating efforts with government institutions to improve the response to the humanitarian crisis. Therefore, it is relevant to identify the lessons learned in this process to inform future efforts in other countries.

The Connection between Mental Health, Psychosocial Support and Religious Actors

This project seeks to facilitate more effective collaboration between religious actors and mental health professionals who offer support to conflict-affected communities — with a focus on displaced persons who have experienced traumatic stress.

Through this project, USIP will:

  1. Build better understanding by conducting and disseminating research to map and identify current efforts, resources, best practices and evidence-based interventions to inform policy and practice.
  2. Strategically disseminate research findings through various fora, including publications.
  3. Foster effective collaboration between religious and traditional actors and mental health professionals to encourage more effective psychosocial support for survivors of conflict-related trauma.
  4. Engage religious actors, mental health professionals, NGOs and public officials through virtual online learning and exchange platforms.

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Our world’s spate of disasters so recently unimaginable — European cities pulverized by war, Earth’s decaying climate or 6 million dead from pandemic disease — evokes a national security question: What other “unthinkable” crises must American citizens and policymakers anticipate? A singular threat is warfare around our planet’s one spot where three nuclear-armed states stubbornly contest long-unresolved border conflicts. Largely unnoted in national security news coverage, the conflicts embroiling China, India and Pakistan are growing more complex and dangerous. A USIP study shows the urgency for U.S. policymakers of working to reduce the risks.

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